Monthly Archives: June 2007

Advocating for Jewish summer camps

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Is it really all pray, no play at Ramah camps across the country?

This was the question posed by a Forward article this week. The piece, looking particularly at Ramah Berkshires, wonders if praying three times a day as well as having Judaic studies decreases the amount of “fun” that goes on at the summer camps.

It would have been hard for me not to address this article. I was not fortunate enough to attend a Ramah growing up, but have since staffed at two of the camps. Nearly all of my friends have both staffed and attended a Ramah.

The clear answer to the above question is NO.

The author of the piece begins with the following question:

At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Jewish campers wake up every morning at 7:30 and daven the morning prayers. After some swimming or maybe a Frisbee game, the older kids can, if they want, daven again in the afternoon. And at the end of a day that includes a 45-minute Judaic learning session, well, they can… daven again.

Sound like a fun-filled, carefree summer camp experience? (MORE)

This is gross misrepresentation of the experience at Ramah. Yes, most of the campers will daven three times a day, as well as have Judaic studies. But what about the many hours of sports, theater, camping, trips, singing, dancing, and boating. What about the life-long friendships and memories forged during these summers.

What is so amazing about Ramah is that most of the Judaica is seamlessly weaved into the daily schedule. Prayer is not seen as a burden, but as an opportunity. Most of the camps use creative approaches to services, bringing in rabbinical students and other professionals to transform what could be boring services into meaningful moments. It is because of this that many campers leave with a new appreciation for prayer.

As for Judaic studies, never in my life have I experienced such fun methods in learning. When working at Ramah Wisconsin, I taught two age groups what I called “Fun Jewish Stuff,” as opposed to yahadut (Judaica). One session used MTV’s The Real World as a basis for learning communal responsibility. Each student took on the persona of a Jewish teen from the around the world. They learned about global customs and practices. The message was clear “kol Yisrael aravim zeh lazeh,” all Jews are responsible for one another.

The other course used a scavenger hunt in the woods to find clues as to who sold Joseph into slavery, studying the famed Genesis story. As the campers found contradicting clues, they learned that the Torah cannot be read without a willingness to analyze and explore the text in greater detail.

Where else in the world can one play football using Hebrew words, do Israeli dance with hundreds of other kids, and daven overlooking a sunset radiating off of the lake?

If I could, I would spend every summer in such an environment that manages to foster fun as well as a love of Judaism.

Summer camp is unlike any other Jewish activity. Time and time again, professionals will tell you there is no better way to engaged children in Judaism.

As Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission said in the article:

Day schools do a phenomenal job of education, but it’s school, it’s homework. It’s not a fair fight with summer camp, which for many kids is the best experience of their lives.

Posted on June 29, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Numbers Game

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UJC reported this week that the number of young Jews who applied for Birthright Israel was far greater than the number who became bar or bat mitzvah this year.

Over the past 12 months, 44,675 Americans have applied to the Birthright program, which offers free 10-day educational trips to Israel for Jews between the ages of 18 and 26. Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, director of United Jewish Communities‘ research and analysis department, projects that between 29,000 and 31,000 American Jews celebrate becoming bar and bat mitzvah each year. (Kotler-Berkowitz used data from the National Jewish Population Survey of 2001, which has been criticized for undercounting the number of American Jews and the level of observance.)

“Taglit-Birthright Israel has become a new Jewish rite of passage, a new life cycle event onto [sic] itself,� said Jeffrey Solomon, president of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. The Bronfman Philanthropies is one of the foundations that initially seeded the program. (MORE)

The article does make it clear that this number could be very misleading for a few reasons:

1) Orthodox females do not have bat mitzvahs but, like all Jews are eligible for Birthright.

2) B’nei Mitzvah only incorporate the age window of 12-13 (more or less), while birthright is open to Jews between 18 and 26.

3) Birthright applicants may be reapplying, having been rejected or unable to go on a previous trip.

The question becomes if those three factors are enough to make up the 15,000 person difference.

It would be interesting for the involved organizations to investigate further. If the trend shows that Birthright numbers are in fact larger than the b’nei mitzvah population, the community truly has something to celebrate.

In that case, Birthright would be, arguably, the only initiative that is successful  in engaging the mysterious “unaffiliated Jews.” These students, who are so unaffiliated as to not have had a bar or bat mitzvahs, likely include some of the “unreachable” populations, for example children of intermarried couples and immigrants.

If however, the studies show the statistics to be misleading, we left to again ask ourselves, how do we know if our engagement tactics are quantitatively successful?

Posted on June 28, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Jews in Far-Flung Places

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EUROPE:

  • Although “many Jews harbor a seething, deep-seated hostility toward Polandâ€?, there are many positive signs in Poland, including “Poland’s vibrant and emerging Jewish lifeâ€?, new permission to submit claims for lost communal property, a pro-Israel stance by the government, and full Jewish studies programs at three universities. (J)
  • Yitzhak Szyf helps revive Jewish life in Transylvania. (Combined Jewish Philanthropies)
  • Dov Hikind, having toured in England, France, Belgium and Germany, reports that local leaders are quite gloomy about the future. (The Jewish Week)

SOUTH OF THE BORDER:

  • Nathan Englander, who has no connection to Argentina “but has dedicated most of his adult life to writing a novel set there,â€? gives us a tour of Jewish Argentina and the Dirty War, which is the focus of his book. (Nextbook)
  • A photoessay of the Jewish cowboys (gauchos) of Argentina. (BBC)

Posted on June 28, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Inspired Kitchen

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The latest installment of Adeena Sussman’s MJL food column “The Inspired Kitchen� is now available. The newest recipe: Yerushalmi Kugel. Looking for a new Shabbat recipe? This sweet and peppery noodle pudding is perfect for a summer Sabbath.

Posted on June 28, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

In Vienna

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I’m currently in Vienna as part of a delegation of (youngish) Jews from New York. The trip is being organized by the City of Vienna as a sort of diplomatic introduction. Why are they interested in introducing the city to a group of 20 Jewish lawyers, businessfolks, and educators?

I’m still a little unclear about this, but hopefully I’ll know more in the next day or two, and in the meantime, I’ll enjoy this beautiful city.

Yesterday, after a bus tour of the city, lunch, and a meeting with the director of the Museums Quartier, we were taken on a tour of the Jewish museum. Since I don’t have much time right now, I’ll share some info about just one interesting room there: a storeroom of Jewish ritual objects that had been used in synagogues throughout Vienna before the Holocaust.

One object was of particular interest: a silver lulav and etrog holder, which had three trays for three etrogim and three spaces for three lulavim. Why three?

Because back in the good old days, individuals didn’t (or didn’t usually) buy their own set of the four species. The synagogue would have a few communal sets, which they would place in these nice silver holders.

The point, of course, is that seeing the artifacts of pre-Holocaust Europe doesn’t only remind us of the Jewish life that is absent here, it reminds us of the ways Jewish life was different and has changed in the last 70 years, as well.

Posted on June 28, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

E-giving

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We here at MJL have a strong appreciation for the internet. We have to in our line of business.

But, as JTA reported yesterday, many other Jewish non-profits haven’t learned how to harness the power of the web–in this case, for donations.

Only one or two national organizations raise a significant portion of their donations from the internet. And the worst-off sector seems to be synagogues.

Some synagogues are reluctant to pay credit-card fees, Robert Evans, the managing director of the Philadelphia-based EHL Consulting Group said, while others simply are not technologically equipped.

“Statistically, the number of synagogues that have vibrant Web sites is shockingly low,” he said. “We are working with 15 to 20 synagogues, and none of them has a Web site that we would say embraces technology adequately.” (MORE)

But don’t worry, MJL has caught on to the trend.

Posted on June 27, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What Should Be Done?

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  • Should Israel try to negotiate a “shelf agreementâ€? — a final-status deal that would then be put on the shelf until Abbas is strong enough to actually implement it, or should any negotiations wait until Abbas is strong enough to implement what is agreed to? (Haaretz)
  • Gideon Levy says that the “boycott on the Palestinian Authority with the aim of weakening Hamas… has yielded its fruits: Hamas has become stronger.â€? So he asks: “Will we continue the boycott policy until an even more extreme and dangerous government arises in Gaza, such as the global jihad or Al-Qaida?â€? He argues that the boycott should be dropped in exchange for an absolute end to Kassams and the release of Shalvit and Alan Johnston, noting: “With or without Hamas, only a prosperous Gaza will change its direction.â€? (Haaretz)
  • Susie Becher of the Meretz-Yachad Party argues that Israel should go for a Final Status agreement which does not seek to split the Palestinians, because leaders and peoples “do not have the luxury of waiting generations to see how it unfolds.â€? (Ynet)
  • Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu says that Jordan should dispatch its Palestinian-Jordanian “Badr Brigadeâ€? to the West Bank, but many on the right attack the idea. (Israel National News)
  • With no military option from Israel, Fatah or Egypt available, and Hamas unwilling to relax its grip on Gaza, Israel’s only chance of unseating Gaza, and a slim one at that, says Danny Rubinstein, is “offering a genuine alternative … pushing for an accord along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative. (Haaretz)
  • Shaul Arieli argues that a deal with Fatah covers too small a proportion of the Palestinians. (Ynet)
  • Pointing to lands taken in 1967 – “Historic Jerusalem, the Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron and Gush Etzion, Mount Grizim and Mount Ebal, Shilo and Beit El, the Ayalon and Dotan Valleys and other placesâ€?, Elyakim Haetzni brushes aside the difficulties and asks: “Is there another people in this world that after all this would seek to destroy such an enterprise – education, science, Torah, industry, agriculture, a fantastic infrastructure – that cost billions? Where is that fool who would dispose of all his assets because they cause him too many worries?â€? (Ynet)
  • Israel Harel argues that Abbas will be defeated in the West Bank as well: “Abbas’ men lost in the fight not because Hamas militants are more brutal or better trained…Hamas won because the vast majority of the Gaza Strip population supports it.â€? (Haaretz)
  • Evelyn Gordon, arguies that strengthening the PA in the West Bank is just another round of falling for the Palestinian “good cop, bad cop” routine, which has failed for 14 years. (The Jerusalem Post)
  • Should Israel allow Palestinian refugees fleeing Gaza passage to West Bank?: Yes (Ynet) Yes (Haaretz) Yes (Haaretz) No (Ynet)
  • Dror Ze’evi argues for a revised Road Map, focusing solely on the West Bank, conditioned on Abbas and Fayyad proving that the West Bank is under Fatah’s complete rule headed by the president. Israel would then release money, followed by removal of the majority of checkpoints within the West Bank, and the release of several hundred prisoners. (Ynet)
  • Although divorce can be a painful process, the end results can be good, says Martin van Creveld, who believes there’s a good chance this is how the Gaza-West Bank split may play out. (The Forward)

Posted on June 27, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Here comes the bride. And the caterer. And the florist. And the band.

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June is a popular time for Jewish weddings. Being a newlywed myself, we went through all of the traditional aspects of creating the simcha: finding a rabbi, deciding what customs to use, having an aufruf and designing our Ketubah.

ketubbah_2.jpg
But all of this was well overshadowed by other decisions. Those about the celebration after the ceremony: what color flowers to use for the centerpieces, what would be served for dinner, what brand of kosher wine to use for the toast, how many people could sit at each table, what color were the table skirts, and would the hotel tolerate a group of 20-somethings acting like they were at a USY convention.

(The answers: Pink/orange/green, chicken or fish, Bartenura, 8-10, white i think, barely–just barely.)

We teach our youngsters that the most important aspect of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is not the party afterward, but the special ceremony that marks the beginning of a great Jewish journey.

Why hasn’t this belief rubbed off on to brides and grooms (perhaps more importantly the families of the couple)? A wedding should be about Jewish continuity.

When two people get married, more is taking place than just the first part of sharing a life together; marriage is a spiritual transformation. The souls of two people who marry become blended together as one. (more)

And more should be taking place than just one big party.

Perhaps we need a sequel to Keeping up with Steins…Keeping up with the Steins and the Cohens?

Posted on June 26, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Do we really need more museums?

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A groundbreaking ceremony for a new museum dedicated to the history of Jewish life and culture in Poland is set for next week.

Polish Jewry is worth memorializing, of course, but the number of museums dedicated to remembering decimated European Jewish populations makes me wonder: How much are these physical structures about the past and how much are they a manifestation of current anxieties about survival? Do Jews spend too much time, money, and energy remembering the past instead of building for the future?

Luckily, on the opposite side of the earth, the recently-announced Alaska Jewish Historical Museum provides a great model for a Jewish museum that avoids these problems. Alaskan Jews will not only have a permanent record of their existence there from the time of the Gold Rush to the present day, they will, more importantly, continue to ensure the existence of their community through the construction of an attached community center and day school.

(Matt Ring is the summer intern at MyJewishLearning.com)

Posted on June 26, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Israel Interviews

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Posted on June 26, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy